Thursday, August 30


On my way home today, a skinny little man got on the bus and, with a small bow-like gesture, asked if he could sit beside me. I responded that indeed he could, and so he sat and gave me a shy smile, and I smiled back, and etsi started a conversation. It wasn't a terribly singular conversation, but it made an impression on me. So this, to the best of my memory (and slightly condensed), is how it went:

AHMET: Where are you from?
ME: Canada.
AHMET: Ah! Toronto!?
ME: No, Montreal.
AHMET: Ah, Montreal. I have a friend in Canada. But I thought that you were from France.
ME: Really, France? Why?
AHMET: (Shrugs and gestures - at my attire, I suppose.)
ME: So, where are you from?
AHMET: Pakistan.
ME: And how long have you been in Greece?
AHMET: Two years.
ME: And before that?
AHMET: Oh, many places... many places... Always moving nowadays, you know? People are always moving, here, there. How many days are you here for?
ME: I live here. Four years now.
AHMET: (Total shock and incredulity registering on his face.) Why??
ME: Well, my father is Greek.
AHMET: And your mother?
ME: Russian and Polish. (This seems to sit better with him.)
AHMET: And your name?
ME: Ranya. You?
AHMET: Different name, Ranya. Hello, I'm Ahmet. (We shake hands.)
ME: So, do you like it here?
AHMET: No. It's very bad country. Not friendly to foreigners at all...
ME: That's true...
AHMET: You like it?
ME: Well, it's got its good things and its bad things, you know? Like anywhere.
AHMET: Yes... good and bad... Job good?
ME: No, not really. I want to go to the islands, to a village. I think it'll be much nicer there, close to nature.
AHMET: Yes, probably much better... Funny to hear different opinion about Greece! I like to hear that... Interesting.
ME: What about you? Have you found a job here?
AHMET: No. Two years I'm looking now and I haven't found anything. Very bad for jobs here. I'm small man, you know? So it's hard for me to find...
ME: Yes, I imagine it's much more difficult for you here than for me...
AHMET: Yes, very difficult. Government very corrupt, police very bad. Worst country in Europe. And now they let these people die in fires... very bad, very bad.
ME: Yes. It's horrible... So, you want to leave, then?
AHMET: Yes, I want to go to Spain. I have friend there. And little sister in Holland. No problems.
ME: And your parents are still in Pakistan?
AHMET: Yes, and my other sister. Studying medical in Islamabad. In two years she'll be doctor. Very good for me, very good for my family.
ME: You must miss Pakistan. Do you ever think of going back?
AHMET: Yes, of course. But very bad country, too. Government changing every two years, very corrupt. And no jobs. But maybe, if god is kind and I make money in Spain, I can go back.
ME: What do you want to do in Spain?
AHMET: Open business, if god is kind. You know, like McDonalds?
ME: A fast food restaurant?
ME: Well good luck with that!

Ahmet seemed to find this very funny (I guess relying on luck for something, instead of god's kindness?) but alas it was my stop so I bid him farewell and went to get off. As I did, though, he called out, still smiling like it was a really good joke, "Good luck to you too!" And so we parted.

I wasn't going to editorialise, but allow me just one comment, please. Perhaps even more interesting than the conversation were the reactions of the Greeks and other immigrants on the bus:
The 20-something Greek cool guy, studied nonchalance, eyes continuously averted and headphones in, but he managed to make his way over to near where we were sitting, and kept leaning in to hear better.
The 50-something Greek man, openly staring, completely flabbergasted.
The 70-something Greek woman, openly distasteful, many shakes of the head and mouth turned down in distaste.
The 40-something Filipino woman, openly hostile, seemingly directed (from the angle of her glare) at Ahmed. Perhaps he was breaking some unwritten social rule by talking to me, a non-immigrant?
The 30-something African dude, completely impassive. In fact, he seemed to be the only person on the bus not at all phased by our talk.

And those were only the people within my line of sight.

And isn't it sad that just a simple, everyday conversation engendered such a strong reaction?

And also, it just occurred to me, why are people from less developed countries called 'immigrants', while we from the West are called 'expats'? Are we not immigrants, too?


melusina said...

Well, I consider myself an immigrant and an expat. We are all both, aren't we? I don't know, I haven't studied the terms closely.

It is sad that you got such a reaction. I don't know, more and more these days I find myself completely tuning out to the reactions of people around me. Sort of a "kiss my ass if you don't like what I'm doing/saying" attitude. I used to resent how Americans could be in this regard, always up in everybody's business, I didn't realize any country could be worse.

betabug said...

I usually call myself a "business class immigrant". We're all still stuffed into the same small aluminium tube, strapped to tons of explosive fuel, and sent flying into the unknown. But here in front the seats are much more confortable, we get a pre-packaged "gourmet" meal with plastic forks, and sometimes the attendants even smile at us.

I won't describe how it is where the other passengers sit, but suffice to say they call it "coach".

buruburu said...

Hmm, dunno how to respond to this post. Mixed feelings I guess.
1.Good for you for talking to him, a lot of people wouldn't have. Chapeau.
2.I'm saddened by his comments, I know our police is pretty barbaric, I cannot begin to imagine how difficult it must be for him.
3.Reaction to the fires. Even the immigrants have got it figured out.
3.The reactions of other people are somewhat expected.
Sad, but true.

Nice post Kassa, very touching.

Pat said...

I assume you were speaking in Greek? Generally, if I'm going to make negative comments about Greece, I try to say them in English as not to offend anyone. Most Greeks who speak English are savy enough to know that Ellada is not really the center of the world, and usually don't get offended by a different opinion.

But, again, I always try not to grouse about Greece in front of Greeks because I want to keep it pleasant...

libero said...

Well done kassandra! You snatched an unbelievable conversation and atmosphere! For most greeks, these people are "transparent", they don 't even exist. Their only concern is how to do the big snatch with the least effort, have a Mercedes SLK, and go every night to skyladika. You recognise them on first sight...
I think the Greek society has come to a breaking point. Since our babyhood, we are tought as ancestors and successors of they greatest civilization in the world. But when we grow up we see a country sunk in corruption, in snatching, where everything spins around the easy profit. Where being a crook isn 't something to hide, but instead be proud of as a vindication of intelligence.

Pat said...

Libero, indeed you are right. The first two words a greek child learns is "ego protos". ME FIRST.

CaliforniaKat said...

I've always been called an immigrant. Can't recall in my 10 years anyone calling me an expat.

After all, I stand in line to renew my residence permit with everyone else. I'm treated and classified no different. In fact, once people find out I'm American, I usually get pushed more and to the back of the line.

Kassandra said...

@mel: In this case I kind of liked that I was getting a reaction - even though it was mostly negative. Hopefully it made some of them think!

@beta: nice metaphor :)

@buru: well, thanks for the chapeau I suppose, but I was raised in Canada, y'know, so it's not like I was making a huge leap forward.

@pat: I was speaking in English as a matter of fact - and I could have been speaking Urdu and gotten the same reaction. It was not what was being said that was freaking some people out; just the fact that me, a 'nice girl' was talking to 'one of them', an immigrant.
In general, I try to avoid 'grousing about Greece' entirely, whether in front of other Greeks or not. But there is a big difference between grousing and between discussing serious issues that the country faces, which Greeks themselves are very fond of and which, as I have adopted this country as my own, I feel I have the right to join them in doing.
However, if I am saying something which may be difficult for some Greeks to accept, I'd rather have them hear it than not, at the risk of things being less 'pleasant'. Sometimes it's good for people to hear unpleasant truths and different points of view. Maybe if they hear enough of that kind of conversation they'll actually change their minds or become motivated themselves to do something about it.

@libero: well said! I couldn't agree more.

@cat: maybe, but all the sites and blogs out there directed at us - Americans, Canadians and Brits living in foreign countries - are called 'expat' this and that, not 'immigrant'. I think if we saw a site called 'immigrant' blog our first assumption would be that it was for people from countries like Russia, China, Pakistan, and so on.

To everyone: here's a neat idea. Play a little word association game. Write down the word 'immigrant' on a piece of paper and then, without thinking, write down all the words it makes you think of below, including country names. Then do the same for the word 'expat'. I think the difference in the words the two call to mind will be striking... it is in my case, anyway.

Pat said...

Kassandra, Word Association per your suggestion:

Immigrant: Albanian, Pakistani, poor, dirty, etc.

Expat: British, American, rich, well-spoken, country-clubs, pubs.

This is terrible! How did I even think of that so quick.

Kassandra said...

Pat, thanks for sharing.

Mine was:
Immigrant: illegal, poor, hardworking, persecuted, (quest for) better life, 3rd world, asylum-seeker,

Sun-seeker, Western, adventurous, foreign romance, affluent, permanently dissatisfied, culture shock, cliques

Kat said...

Well your original question was, "are we not immigrants, too?" And my answer was 'yes.'

You're right. All of the sites out there call us expats, and I'll bet they're from western/developed countries. That's their label.

But maybe I see this differently because I'm from a country where we're all immigrants and we know it. I know plenty of people from Russian, Afghanistan and Africa that I consider expats and they call themselves that as well.

Me, I'm an immigrant in my homeland and this country as well. No change.

AL said...

Immigrant = underpaid/ lower waged than locals

expat=overpaid with benefits.

enjoyed your thoughts. I am a brown skinned asian in athens too.

Anonymous said...

Miss your blog!

joe said...

Hey Casandra
My name is Joe Pinzone and I'm casting an international travel show about expats moving abroad. We'd love to film in Greece and wanted to know if you could help us find expats who have moved there within the last 1-2 years or have been there for 3-4 years, but recently moved into a new home. The show documents their move to a new country and will place the country in fabulous light. I wanted to know if you could help spread the word to expats living there or are close to moving. If you'd like more information, please give me a call at 212-231-7716 or skype me at joefromnyc. You can also email me at Looking forward to hearing from you.

Joe Pinzone
Casting Producer
P: 212-231-7716
Skype: Joefromnyc